Brightening Children's Lives
LED Classroom Lights Enhance Health and Learning
Wendy Fenner, Principal Engineer
The Las Vegas LED Classroom Lighting Initiative Project is gaining momentum, due to the efforts of Wendy Fenner, principal civil engineer of Clark County. What began as a solution to a medical condition for a Calvary Christian Learning Academy (CCLA) student has led to findings that have attracted the attention of Senator Harry Reid’s office and Paul Gerner, associate superintendent of facilities for the Clark County School District (CCSD).
The idea of the project came to Fenner while she was attending a birthday party with her 7-year-old daughter Morgan in the summer of 2009. Fenner learned that one of Morgan’s CCLA first grade classmates was afflicted with a rare, life-threatening medical condition, erythropoietic protoporphyria (EPP). These individuals are very sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light, and when exposed to sunlight or the fluorescent lights commonly used in schools, they experience severe pain, itching and blistering of the skin. With prolonged exposure, they can develop gall bladder and liver disease.
Learning this, Fenner was moved to find a way to help the young girl, who wears hats and long sleeves to school to limit the harmful exposure, but can’t completely eliminate it to her face and hands. Fenner recalled her fascination with a college physics course on light prisms, where she discovered that each color of the rainbow has a specific order and wavelength: red, orange, yellow, green, blue and ultraviolet.
The visible red color has the longest wavelength, and even longer far-infrared light waves are used in many saunas and laser treatments. At the other end of the visible spectrum are the much shorter blue and ultraviolet wavelengths. A significant percentage of the lamp rays generated from man-made fluorescent lights utilize the blue and ultraviolet portions of the light spectrum.
Fenner’s research into light emitting diode (LED) lights began when she discovered that, unlike fluorescent or incandescent lights, LED lights are manufactured with controllable wavelengths, and the ultraviolet waves can be programmed out. LED lights create white light by combining the red through green wavelengths of the light spectrum.
“I knew changing the lights would make a difference for this little girl, as well as other students and teachers who have a low tolerance to fluorescent light. However, using LED lamps as replacement bulbs for fluorescent and traditional incandescent bulbs was a relatively new technology. I knew they were expensive and we would need help with the funding,” Fenner recalls.
The Advantages of LEDs
LED lights do not contain toxins or hazardous materials like mercury and are extremely energy efficient. If manufactured properly, they can last 10 years or more. Fenner notes, “I researched the energy savings and learned that the cost of the LED bulbs would pay for themselves in less than two years. I began researching energy incentive programs that were available to the Las Vegas community.”
She reached out to well-connected members within the Las Vegas energy community, and obtained grants and funding from the city of Las Vegas Green Building Program and the Green Chips Public/Private Partnership. Combining this with the school’s traditional fundraising efforts, she raised the $19,000 needed to retrofit the main building of the school, which houses the preschool through fourth grade classrooms.
Fenner’s research led her to industry expert Adam Green, LED Optics owner and national sales manager of the Energy Efficiency Division of NEDCO Supply, who supported the project with his high-quality LED products and expertise. In July 2010, volunteers from the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Union Local 357 helped install the new LED lamps, and then everyone waited and watched.
Improvements in Health, Skills and Behavior
In an effort to assure the grant entities that their money was well spent, Fenner coordinated a team of researchers comprised of community members and University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) faculty and students to help monitor the results of the project. The team included Tom Perrigo, sustainability officer at the city of Las Vegas Green Building Program and the Green Chips public/private partnership; Dr. Bob Boehm, director of the UNLV Energy Research Center; Dr. Thomas Piechota, director of UNLV Sustainability and Multidisciplinary Research; and Lisa Pitch, with the Clark County School District’s Department of Assessment, Accountability, Research, and School Improvement.
Over the course of the 2010-2011 academic year, the health of the little girl that inspired this project improved dramatically: Her EPP levels dropped 40 points, her immunity levels increased, and she missed only one day of school. This child, that used to fall asleep during the ride home from school the previous year, exhausted after a day spent under fluorescent lights, has experienced an enormous increase in her energy levels. She now practices Tae Kwan Do four nights a week and even won a regional tournament for her green belt.
More amazingly, most of the students in the third and fourth grade classrooms reported academic test scores that were well above average. Improvements in these scores, as well as listening and thinking skills, have caught the attention of several community leaders.
According to Green, LED lights generate less interference with visual and auditory processing than traditional fluorescent lights. “The light acuity is so sharp with LED lamps that the eyes don’t have to work as hard to focus. Therefore, people experience less eye strain and headaches,” he explains. Because LEDs use more full-spectrum wave lengths than UV-dominant fluorescent lights, Fenner speculates there is a correlation in improved immunity through increased vitamin D levels. “I also suspect that there are a large number of children being mislabeled as ADD or ADHD as a result of spending approximately 75 percent of their daylight hours in classrooms under fluorescent lights,” she advises. “I read an article published by the Centers for Disease Control in 2010 stating that the percentage of children with a parent-reported ADHD diagnosis increased by 22 percent between 2003 and 2007. I find it interesting how that time-frame correlates to the introduction of compact fluorescent light (CFL) into residential use as a means to replace traditional incandescent bulbs; which means that nowadays, children are bombarded with fluorescent lighting both at school and at home.”
Better Energy Efficiency and Air Quality
Until recently, designers have ignored the importance of natural daylight and how it is needed for proper biorhythm function. Fortunately, this can be corrected by retrofitting the lighting systems with LED technology. Most residential bulbs have direct LED replacements, while some commercial-grade fixtures require minor wiring adjustments to remove the ballasts that are needed to ignite the fluorescent tubes. Also, the humming generated by these ballasts can cause auditory interference. As a result of the LED light conversion, the school enjoyed a 23 percent decrease in power consumption in Building B, where the lights were installed, for an average monthly saving of $500.
Through her CCSD connections, Fenner also discovered the real purpose for ultraviolet light: disinfection. “There are germicidal UV-C bulbs that can be wired inside a building adjacent to the coils of the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) system. Most new buildings have been designed to continually recirculate the same inside air to improve energy efficiency, and over time, the indoor air quality can start to degrade. The UV-C light waves placed over the coils kills germs, bacteria, viruses and mold that deposit in the coolant,” Fenner explains. “The use of UV-C bulbs has been proven to increase the energy efficiency of the HVAC units, reduce maintenance costs and most importantly, help sanitize the indoor air [see Tinyurl.com/4y8qhqh]. A combination of LED full spectrum lighting for illuminating classrooms and UV-C germicidal bulbs in the HVAC system will help our students tremendously.”
Spearheading a Bright National Future
Fenner has plans to bring the LED project to classrooms with autistic children. Based on the CCLA results, she predicts that the autistic students will show signs of improvement that can be related to the LED lights and their role in reducing environmental triggers caused by fluorescent lighting. She also is working with the CCSD in moving toward the implementation of a pilot program within the public schools. Paul Gerner, CCSD associate superintendent of facilities, is optimistic. “We’re always interested in the connection that technology has with energy usage, and any improvements where education is concerned,” he says.
Regarding future LED projects within the CCSD, Gerner comments, “The logical next step is for our statistical department to evaluate the data coming in and see what is provable. The challenge that is always present in gathering educational data is creating methodology for the collection of measurable and meaningful data. We do, however, have the advantage of over 1,000 classrooms that could be used in some type of pilot experiment to generate significant amounts of controlled data to be analyzed.”
Fenner admits, “My goal is to spearhead an initiative that brings LED lights into every school, hospital, commercial and residential building across the country.” She adds, “If we can offer a safer lighting and improved learning environment for our students that helps improve behavior, health and academic test scores, while saving money and conserving energy at the same time, then it’s definitely worth the effort to find a way to make this happen.”
Fenner continues, “What this really means for all of us is that if our students are able to demonstrate significant improvements from these lighting changes, then these benefits should directly translate to the rest of the adult population who also live and work in the built environment. Las Vegas is already known around the world for our constant innovation and ability to continually reinvent our bright light image. What I really want Las Vegas to be known for is how our community is willing to join forces for our children and work together to help make more of our students brighter in terms of health and academic performance. If we choose to rally for our children, I know that it will also lead us on a quicker path towards energy independence and economic growth.”
Wendy Fenner, P.E., is the LED Project coordinator. Contact her at 702-491-0977 or WendyZFenner@gmail.com.